A friend of mine regularly pays money to run 26.2 miles. For fun.

Years ago, she trained for the Pikes Peak Ascent—a half marathon up the 14,115-foot mountain. (That’s over 2.5 miles above sea level. Trees stop growing around 11,500 feet, people.)

She described to me the need to scrupulously regulate nutrition and rest even for practice. Otherwise, she’d hit “the bonk” that made it nearly impossible for her to finish. Her body’s glycogen stores had been ravaged. She could barely rise off a couch, let alone finish a half-marathon at altitude.

Her body required equal compensation for expended energy. From the angle of emotionally healthy leadership, I get this on a very real level.

During my family’s work in Africa, the treadmill of daily life and ministry was naturally positioned higher, perhaps more so by efforts to fight poverty and suffering around us. Then there were additional traumas: the time we were robbed. The time my husband got malaria. The time my son was hit by a motorcycle taxi on his bike. The time I was in an accident causing a fatality.

My soul felt like it was living in dog years–seven years for every single year lived on the field.

Maybe your ministry demands, like my family’s loss of power or water, deluge of mosquito bites, or nerve-singeing traffic don’t always feel heroic. But somehow, they demand more than your available emotional or physical or spiritual “glycogen” stores.

And tanking may feel like a near-constant threat.

Emotionally healthy leadership: Soul rest, this way

Like me, maybe you’ve wondered, How would I even add new rhythms? Have you seen my life?!

But God’s unique plan for your soul restoration is more than recommended. It’s a calling.

“It is absolutely vital to remember that a pastor’s [or layperson’s] ministry is never just shaped by his knowledge, experience, and skill. It is always also shaped by the true condition of his heart,” Paul David Tripp cautions in Dangerous Calling.

Ministry amplifies our relationship with God: the wholehearted, beautiful parts, or hollow service from a withered soul.

For a lifetime of robust, genuine ministry from the inside out, it’s critical you find your unique “rest DNA.” Swap rhythms of burnout with rhythms of healing and wholeness–so you can love sincerely (Romans 12:9) … and receive love from God, where God asks us to remain (see John 15:9).

Restorative rhythms often involve steps like exercise, healthy sleep, nurturing time with your family, and maybe seeing a counselor.

But don’t miss these, too.

Living in authentic community

Mutual community can be tough in leadership. Maybe what you’re processing inside is confidential. Or you long for a level of understanding your friends can’t offer. But as Tripp continues, anyone in ministry is “a member of the body of Christ who himself desperately needs the ministry of the very body he has been called to train and lead.”

First Corinthians 12:21 reminds us we vitally need community for our humility, transformation, and display of the whole person of Jesus: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”

Emotionally healthy leadership means choosing authenticity.

Ruth Barton notes in Life Together in Christ,

[The men on the road to Emmaus] were not having a formal quiet time. They were discussing the stuff of their lives–all the things that had happened that were having such an impact on them spiritually and every other way–and something about the nature and quality of their conversation opened up space for Jesus to draw near. And the encounter that took place among them was completely reorienting and life changing … it becomes a transforming community.

With whom can you regularly, completely unmask emotionally and spiritually? Be known, loved, and mutually nurtured?

Solitude, silence, stillness

But there’s more knowing to be had. What God says to some laboring for him, driving out demons: “Away from me. I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23).

I’m not relating solitude to salvation. But those who are God’s have something in common: He knows them, and “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27).

Hearing that still, small voice takes time. Space. Quiet.

Solitude also provides room for discernment, rather than fearful reactions or auto-pilot decision making. (Think of the Gibeonite deception in Joshua 9, which kept Israel from taking the whole Promised Land.)

Being alone with God pulls us from attempts to define our identity by what we do, others’ opinions, or what we possess (be it reputation, control, popularity, or relationships). It’s a fierce temptation: Work or sacrifices or success become gods themselves. Tripp affirms, “If you are not attaching your identity to the unshakable love of your Savior, you will ask the things in your life to become your savior, and it will never happen.”

Personally, burnout bears down when activity for God surpasses my presence with Him: “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me … Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

Jesus didn’t model burnout. But He did model turning away from ministry to pray.

Rest and sabbath

As a young mom, I dreaded Sundays. While everyone rested, I was changing diapers, doling out Goldfish, emptying the dishwasher. I was fried. (And man, was I irritable.)

But in my scrape-me-off-the-floor fatigue, God gently pointed out I needed rhythms, too. I needed to depend on others, asking for help and care. I needed boundaries, saying “no” to the dishwasher even if it meant Mt. Washmore on Monday.

There was a way to settle into His green pastures and still waters. And it wasn’t to mow the grass and swim laps. My insistence on muscling through was a form of rebellion. Self-sustenance. Defiance.

God associates rhythms of restoration and Sabbath with freedom from slavery to work (and other substitutes for identity and worship): “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).

We require rest for more reasons than avoiding physical “bonk.” As Mark Buchanan writes in The Holy Wild: Trusting in the Character of God, “Most of the things we need to be most fully alive never come in busyness. They grow in rest. Mindset of the man too busy: I am too busy being God to become like God.”

What could rhythms of rest look like?

For Sabbath:

  • Prepare the day before, prepping food or a takeout plan. Complete tasks that will drive you crazy if you’re trying to rest.
  • Rest from hosting unless it’s life-giving.
  • Consider refraining from shopping, social media, kids’ activities, and checking email. Weigh well what’s replenishing, addressing your soul—and what’s just mind-numbing.
  • Look forward to an activity you love.
  • Church not life-giving or mutual? Carve out time for personal worship and fulfilling time with God.

Every day:

  • Mentally set a time to stop working and do something replenishing.
  • Reserve 5-10 minutes of space throughout your day to take a breather and reorient to wholeheartedness.

The rhythm of “no”

Overseas, needs seemed to hemorrhage from everywhere–our reason for being there. But my opportunity, a friend pointed out, wasn’t necessarily my call. Meeting even the most dire needs would be physically impossible.

So I clung to verses like “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2). My “flock” being the needs God placed in my path, like the Good Samaritan.

Eugene Peterson wrote, “Busyness is an illness of the spirit,” creating leaders “blasphemously,” chronically busy. The reasons? “I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant.” Or, “I am lazy. I indolently let other people decide what I will do.”

In The Contemplative Pastor, Peterson declares relentless busyness is “the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection … a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for Him.”

In my own overcommitment, I shun the humility of God-given physical, emotional, social, and spiritual limitations; of seeing myself with sober judgment (Romans 12:3).

But surely it’s just me who pays the price when I run too hard. Right?

Miserably, I do not preach the gospel to myself, nor do others see it through me (and my snarling). I convey God loves worn-to-the-bone Christians best. That He doesn’t really care about our well-being, our shalom.

If my restorative rhythms are sprint … sprint … collapse, I might be attempting more than the good works God prepared for me to do (Ephesians 2:10). That is, I have a discernment problem. Can my over-functioning, my constant “yes,” be unbelief or idolatry?

Emotionally healthy leadership means leaving space–a Selah of sorts–for paying attention to the God around me. To be present with and enjoy Him. To say the right noes for the sake of the right yeses.

Rhythms of grief and joy

I recently asked a counselor-acquaintance of mine about what she does for self-care. Her answer: “I take time every day to mourn.”

God calls mourning with Him blessed (Matthew 5:4). To sit with Him, acknowledging what’s broken about this world, and pour out my emotion (Psalm 62:8), even if I can’t change something.

My husband, who cares for missionaries as part of his profession, suggests coupling this with rhythms of gratitude and joy. The Prayer of Examen helps me to experience God in both, reflecting on each day in light of God’s presence.

Honoring the image of God in you

Remember Eric Liddell’s (overquoted) character in Chariots of Fire? “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

How does your heart naturally swell to (unproductive, unseen) worship?

As a parent, maybe you’ve sensed this from God’s perspective–when you smile as your kids draw for hours or strum the guitar. How does God take pleasure in how he made you? How will you honor and pry open space for His image in you?

Emotionally healthy leadership doesn’t need to be stuffed to be abundant. To tip our faces toward God. What if happy worship of God defined your ministry? 

Sink into a true Gospel: God doesn’t love us for what we produce. Seek out critical restorative rhythms for the sake of emotionally healthy leadership and your own soul.

Copyright © 2023 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House), empowers parents to creatively engage kids in vibrant spirituality. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBrhttps://www.JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.